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Stephen J. Cannell

All Booked Up

As far as we know, frighteningly prolific television writer/producer Stephen J. Cannell doesn't traipse around his hometown of Los Angeles wearing Nike sneakers. If he did though, it wouldn't be startling. His lengthy career seems to exemplify the athletic-wear company's advertising slogan/philosophy, "Just Do It."

The co-creator, writer, and sometime executive producer of 38 television series, including The Rockford Files, Wiseguy, The A-Team, and 21 Jump Street, Cannell prevailed over the severe dyslexia that plagued his childhood and still haunts him. "By the time I was in the fourth grade, I was pretty certain I didn't have as much on the ball as my classmates," he recalls. "And I was taught that through the rest of my high school and college career, because no matter how hard I studied, I would never be able to get the same grade as people who studied much less."

Graduating at the bottom of his high school class, though, did little to discourage Cannell's love for writing. With guts and a can-do attitude, he quickly entered the realm of writing for television: "I just get such a bang out of it," Cannell says about his work. "It doesn't frighten me like it does some writers. Writers who are trying to be brilliant generally only end up being pretentious."

Now a big-time Hollywood power broker, the earthy Cannell can't be accused of putting on airs, only of being extremely driven and dynamic. After years of working for others, he started his own production company and studio in 1979, supervising all aspects of the business's operations. In 1995 he sold the enterprise. He gave it all up -- to write novels. That year William Morrow published The Plan, Cannell's first action-adventure thriller about the mob taking over the White House. Since then he has produced a book a year, touching on subjects such as cyberspace, confidence games, and campaign-finance corruption. His latest release, The Devil's Workshop, which he plugs this Tuesday at Books & Books, is a complex chiller about bio-weapons falling into the wrong hands.

Dreaming up novels about plausible situations that just might occur requires tons of research. Cannell reads profusely, surfs the Net regularly, and relies on the expertise of technical advisors. He's not always able to visit the far-flung places where his books are often set, but he has hung out a few times in our humid burg, which he admires for its "fluffy white clouds and bright blue sky." (His Final Victim, about a serial-killing computer hacker, takes place partially in Miami.)

Ultimately for Cannell writing is all about entertainment. He hopes his audience has as much fun reading the books he considers "cautionary tales" as he has creating them. "I want them to be page-turners. I want you to not be able to put them down," he says. "I'm not writing for the ages. I always say to people, 'If you are on page 60 of my book and you're not hooked, throw it away!'"


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